Lincoln Essay, Research Paper
In Mexico City there is a mural by Diego Rivera which depicts Hernando Cortez as a one-eyed syphilitic hunchback. What this lacks in historical accuracy it makes up for by faithfully reflecting the artist’s attitude toward the conquistadors. We are repeatedly told on public television that Lincoln was a clearly heroic figure. If heroism is measured by the size of the pile of corpses a man leaves behind, this is correct. We must not let our emotions deprive us of objectivity. Lincoln was neither one-eyed, hunchbacked nor syphilitic but on the other hand, he never deserved the name of “Honest Abe”. Like some other politicians, maybe all politicians, he spoke with a forked tongue.
Lincoln came to power at a unique time, with a unique opportunity to decide the fate of the nation and of a million of his fellow citizens, who wound up as casualties of the Civil War. There was no lack of counsel. Editor Horace Greeley and a host of others advised letting the seceding states go in peace. More ardent abolitionists were outraged by this suggestion. Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell welcomed a civil war as an antidote to the greed of Northern merchants and the cruelty of Southern slave owners. Outgoing President Buchanan thought secession was illegal, but so would be the use of force to prevent it. But Lincoln needed no advice. He reversed Buchanan’s policy of giving up Southern military posts on demand, and the war was on. How and why was this a rational decision?
Of course Lincoln stoutly denied it was to abolish slavery. The four slave states which did not secede had a greater population greater than half that of the eleven states which did. To proclaim an anti-slavery crusade would substantially increase his problem. As a minority president (from a field of four candidates) his mandate was thin; his party platform did not call for abolition, but merely containing slavery within its present borders. His real motive was manifest destiny, the control of the West and the wealth of the orient beyond. As a lawyer and politician he had worked to authorize rail road bridges across the Mississippi River both to cut off navigation to the South where Midwest farmers depended upon the port of New Orleans as an outlet for their produce, and to provide access to markets in the East. The big issue confronting Lincoln and the Midwestern business culture with which he associated was whether the proposed transcontinental railroad would run from Chicago to San Francisco or from New Orleans to some point in Southern California and this concern was bound up with control of the expansion of what he called the Slave Power. Since preservation of the union was essential to such control he gladly embraced the opportunity to make himself a dictator, to usurp the power of Congress to raise and equip armies, spend unappropriated funds in the treasury, to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, arbitrarily arresting citizens accused of preaching defeatism or advocating peace at any price and denying mail distribution to opposition newspapers he continued as de facto monarch for 77 days. He finally called Congress into extraordinary session after the war had begun.
But the war proceeded slowly and there was always the threat of foreign intervention to maintain the flow of Southern cotton to English mills. After all, the British had burned the White House less than half a century before. Something else was needed to counter the claim of the Southerner’s that they were only fighting for their independence, as the thirteen original colonies had the previous century, just one slave power fighting to free itself from another. Lincoln told Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, that freeing the slaves was an absolute military necessity and the only way the war could be won. This was followed shortly by the Emancipation Proclamation and then the Gettysburg Address, harking back to the Declaration of Independence and its affirmation that all men are created equal. Thus the resourceful (some would say two-faced) president who would not risk the union to free the slaves turned to freeing the slaves to save the union.
Ironically, Lincoln had previously opposed presidential war making. This was when President Polk was maneuvering the country into the war with Mexico, which Lincoln disapproved of because it was steering Manifest Destiny toward the South. He then wrote W.H. Herndon, his law partner back in Springfield, “Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation whenever he thinks it necessary to repel invasion… and you allow him to make war at his pleasure… Because the King had always been involving and impoverishing the people in wars the Constitution had given that power to Congress…No one man should have that power”.
At the time most of the people in both North and South were small, independent farmers, though there was the beginning of urban, industrial civilization in the North. These small farmers had little interest in the slavery question, apart from some apprehension in the South about the effects of precipitately turning loose a mass of freed slaves as landless vagrants. But they left political matters mostly to the elites. These in the South were the planter aristocracy and a small professional class, and in the North the bankers, lawyers, industrialists and preachers, with a small sprinkling of artists and writers located mostly in the New England states. The common people were poorly educated, chauvinistic and expansionist. Lemming-like they followed the leadership into a disastrous war, the most costly of our national experience.
What does a recital of Lincoln’s lack of principles have to do with the Southern Initiative effort? By showing the hypocrisy of the idolatrous praise heaped upon the incidental emancipator, perhaps it may dispel some of the myths that bedevil race relations today. Slavery came and went in all societies, but only in the United States at the cost of a war that exacted a million casualties and devastated a section of the country. Mr. Lincoln’s war hastened the process, but left a terrible aftermath for the descendants of slaves, masters and everyone else. A legacy of hunger, disease, ignorance, bigotry and hate stems from the war and the reconstruction period which followed it. With mutual respect for the justified aspirations of all, perhaps we can come together as common victims of the mistakes and horrors of the past for mutual benefit, respecting the heritage and symbols of all who are willing to respect our own.